As I work my way toward the point when I’ll begin to pitch Third Place Media services in earnest, I’ve been busy putting together pieces that I’ll use to explain what I’m offering to prospective clients. At the same time, I’ve been using these excursions to develop my approach and visual aesthetic for capturing what is happening (or could be happening) in various urban and suburban communities. The Gateway Transit Village development in New Brunswick, NJ started out as a simple photo walk to that end, but turned into a much deeper investigation that brought to the fore several important issues I’m likely to be helping clients manage.
Gateway Transit Village is a very ambitious project that lays out significant changes to the composition of the community around the NJ Transit station. Its scale was enabled by the collaboration of a very large and diverse group of partners, from government to private developers, transit oriented development advocacy organizations and others. An in-depth review of the plans and players is beyond the scope of this post, but this article is a good general overview.
When I frame a shot, I’m thinking about what story it can help tell. This shot and the one at top are aesthetically interesting. The texture and colors in the stones speaks to to character and vintage of the historic station. It doesn’t, though, tell me much about what’s around it.
This is more complete. I have both the station platform with train, as well as this footbridge, one of the newly built features of the transit village project.
However, it’s images like this that really gets at why it’s important to care about this. I find a disappointingly large amount of US transit infrastructure to be either soulless, decrepit or both. It’s no surprise that the idea that transit can be a platform for economic activity and social engagement can seem out in left field to some. But look at what happens when we take the time to build (or preserve) a warm, inviting, timeless fixture. This group is completely at ease and treats the station as if it was someone’s front porch, precisely the kind of thing our designs ought to encourage. They stopped me as I went past, wanting to know what I was up to. After I explained what I was looking at, the man in the blue jersey pointed me toward the area inside the station where historic photos of the area around the station had been mounted on the wall. It’s not a coincidence that this is one of my favorite shots from the set.
I’ll walk you quickly through the rest of the images from the first encounter:
These capture the existing assets, primarily the station and its immediate surroundings.
St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church and historic sections of the Rutgers University campus abut both the rail line and the transit village development.
The Corner Tavern Restaurant at Easton Avenue and Somerset Street marks the interface between the existing retail, food and beverage businesses on both streets with the new development and one of the university’s modern buildings, University Center.
University Center’s parking facilities are located above ground, providing space for street level restaurants and shops.
The rest of the initial set focuses on new development:
The group of large buildings viewable from the platform include parking, the new Rutgers/Barnes & Noble bookstore and The Vue, a luxury residence with both condos and rental properties.
This footbridge links the west bound platform directly to the garage and bookstore.
A Starbucks supplied cafe features indoor and outdoor seating, with sight lines to the train station, church and part of the historic campus.
These large windows on Somerset Street help somewhat to draw the neighborhood into the store, but don’t really provide the texture and permeability that cafe tables or open shutters would bring.
The residences tower over the rest of the buildings near the corner.
This should be a rich focal point. We have pedestrian space framed by the ginko trees, and a clear sight line to the red and brown stone bridge and train.
But where are the shops and restaurants nestled into the building foundation? It’s an entire block of grey concrete staring back.
The parking entrance and one restaurant at the bottom of the hill are the only items distinguishing the Easton Avenue ground level face from a monolith.
On the south side of the tracks more buildings are going up. This will house a new facility of the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and a Fresh Grocer.
Though I was operating with a bit of an information deficit I still felt, at this point, I had gotten a good workout for finding good shot angles and compositions. These sorts of images would be one component of a plan to communicate progress of a project.
Initially, this adventure would have ended here. As I was leaving New Brunswick, a friend who had noticed my movements via Twitter and Instagram pinged me to point out that there was a fairly complicated story behind development past and present here. Based on the sheer number of parties involved, I couldn’t imagine that it wasn’t so, but her comments about how public input was handled convinced me that there was more here I needed to learn. A few weeks later I was back to have lunch with friends of hers, after which we took a walking tour around the designated development area. They generously spent a large part of a day sharing their encyclopedic and colorful knowledge of the history of development in New Brunswick.
The couple moved to New Brunswick over 20 years ago so that they could have access to the train for commuting to New York.They explained that they walk to as many neighborhood resources as is feasible, but that there are still plenty of basic needs (a grocery store, for instance) that require a car to reach. In principle, they support the aims of the transit village (or any type of development that would enrich their neighborhood), but it has been the approach to communication (or lack of it) by governing bodies and developers that has led to misunderstandings and concern among their neighbors. To really get at the issues, though, they felt the best way to explain what was happening was to show me.
This green fence on Condict Street will be one entrance to a combined parking and residential project that will go up near their home. They explained that zoning changes affecting this area were pushed through in the absence of detailed plans for anticipated new buildings. Some residents and city council members were concerned that this would open up the neighborhood to unintended consequences by not having clarity on what kind of structure might be built before allowing the change. Because plans for new construction had not yet been submitted, the rezoning was approved without a typically required traffic study. When the proposal for this project was actually submitted, the fact that the new zoning had already taken effect meant that a traffic study was not performed. Many were not happy with the way this process was handled.
This is the view of The Vue (sorry), looking south on Easton Avenue. On the whole, the couple was pleased with the aesthetic and placement of this piece of the plan. It’s large and attention grabbing, but it doesn’t feel out of place.
As students had not yet returned for the fall semester, the streets were still on the quiet side. They assured me this would be a very different scene a few weeks later.
This lot has been empty for many years. No one is quite clear on why it remains this way.
We grumbled in stereo about this lost opportunity.
They are very happy to see that a full service grocery will be located near the station.
New Brunswick already has many of the elements that make for a successful transit village. Here we see buildings that are part of Johnson & Johnson global headquarters, mere steps from the train station.
In the other direction, the construction site for the hospital extension and grocery store hums along.
Headed back up the slope, the cream colored building beyond The Vue is Alexander Johnston Hall, the second oldest building of the Rutgers campus.
An alternate entrance to the development we saw earlier is on Somerset Street.
Just next to the development is New Brunswick’s Ronald McDonald House. The couple isn’t sure if it will remain in the location during or after the construction.
St. Peter the Apostle Elementary School no longer operates full time classes, but does still host a few special programs. It is at one border of the transit village designated area.
The main facility of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital is, as well.
This is the view through the couple’s back yard. The tree line farthest in the back will be one building face of the new development.
The structure will run just up to where these houses are, but not displace them.
Back at their home, they showed me materials they had received that explained some of the changes that were happening. They lamented that, while the material was clear and informative, they wished they had been able to see it before all of the projects had been finalized and approved!
This is where we really arrived at the heart of the matter. At no point did anything they relayed to me come off as NIMBY-ism. Far from it, the couple enthusiastically seeks changes that will make their neighborhood a better place and want to be able to play a role in bringing them to fruition. While they worry about issues such as lower income residents not benefiting from high rent development and independent business being pushed out by chains, they sense that they best way to manage change is to be part of it. The friction occurs with the lack of explanatory communication by the big parties behind the development, and too few opportunities for two way dialog. They pointed to a handful of developers that made efforts to communicate details of plans intended for submission to the city and invited review of the materials and face-to-face feedback at public meetings. The couple expressed the feeling that even if their specific input wasn’t incorporated into any plans, the fact that someone was listening gave them much greater confidence that any construction that did happen would be thoughtful and sensitive to the community around it. Unfortunately, for the few cases like this, there are many more where the first anyone is aware of a new project it has already been green-lighted by the city.
In Dave Meslin’s TED talk The Antidote to Apathy, he speaks about the barriers governments put up that prevent constructive dialog with citizens. (Hat tip to South Orange Village President Alex Torpey for sending the video to me.) Meslin uses the humorous example of a mock advertisement for Nike shoes in the small font, image-free, colorless text announcement of new construction proposals that are commonly run by governments in local newspapers to meet public notice requirements. The joke is that no one would run an advertisement like this if they actually wanted someone to notice it or take any action based on it. It’s not so funny when you see that your home is located inside the thick red line on a diagram for plans over which you had no input. I think we can do much better than this.